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Cultural development of the North takes vision

Jellsy-one-one arrived on Earth fairly recently. Jellsy brought a new way of thinking about the economy that we need here in Northern Ontario.
David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University,

Jellsy-one-one arrived on Earth fairly recently. Jellsy brought a new way of thinking about the economy that we need here in Northern Ontario.

Jellsy isn’t an alien: the letters JEL:Z11 are the classification number for cultural industries in the Journal of Economic Literature. There is a whole new field in economics about the economics of arts, sports and other cultural activities.

Statistics Canada’s Satellite Accounts show how much cultural industries contributed to the economy in 2010: 703,900 direct jobs and $53.2 billion in income. That is four per cent of the economy. The mining industry, by way of comparison, provides 370,000 jobs. Ontario’s culture industries added $23.8 billion to provincial income, well above the national average.

Cultural production is the most rapidly growing sector worldwide, according to UNESCO. Employment in industries like mining is shrinking, but culture is growing. Manufacturing is shrinking, but creative arts are blossoming.

Technology is making it cheaper to produce almost everything. People use the money they save for pretty cars, movies about superheroes, sports events, music, printed T-shirts and interior design — all products with more cultural content and less material content. We are consuming more cultural product all the time.

Technology is also replacing labour in many industries: where did all the labour go? More and more goes to cultural production. The problem for the North is that we are weak on the cultural industries.

There is a brilliant analysis of how economies develop using the “product space” model. This is a project that looked at the links between industries. According to the research, it is easier for a country to develop new industries that naturally have links to their old industries. If Germany already exports chemicals, it is easy to begin exporting photographic paper. This is a modern version of the Canadian staples theory that showed that links to Canadian resource exports explained the Canadian pattern of development. Wheat exports led to farm equipment exports (Massey-Ferguson, for example) and transportation systems that in turn helped create an auto industry that let Bombardier become a Canadian transportation/aerospace giant.

There are no strong links from our Northern resources industries to the cultural industries. If the future really is culture, then the old Newfoundland saying: “You can’t get there from here,” may apply.

This is the real development problem for Northern Ontario. We have to maintain and improve our traditional sectors just to stand still. To build a basis for future prosperity we have to grow a big Northern cultural industry. This is the North’s most important 21st century infrastructure project. We have to get ahead of the rest of Ontario while starting from behind.

It will take leadership. Start naming politicians, from Northern Development Minister Michael Gravelle through the mayors and council members to MPs and MPPs. They control the public purse strings. Funding decisions will be crucial.

Here is an example of being strategic. The City of Sudbury contributed $10 million to get a Northern Architecture School. For this money, the city got about 375 person-years of construction employment, roughly 300 more person-years of full-time employment and about 400 students per year, each contributing $20,000 per year, or about half a job. Overall, something like 7,775 person-years of employment went to Sudbury for a $10-million investment in expanding the cultural sector. By way of contrast, Sudbury’s Maley Drive extension, an ordinary road project, cost 50 times as much per job created and does nothing to modernize the economy.

We now export architectural education to earn revenue, we keep more Northern students in the North, and we add to the pool of Northerners ready to design new Northern wood products.

Northern politicians may control the purse strings, but they are not going to lead. They’ve never heard of Jellsy-one-one and they don’t know where we have to go.

Leadership has to come from citizens who don’t want the North left drifting in the backwater of the new economy. We have to build our own large and dynamic cultural sector to attract, create, and hold talent of all sorts. It will take money, but first it takes vision.